Most small business owners don’t give much thought to writing. After all, they have a hundred other things to worry about: supply costs, profit margins, taxes, getting and keeping customers, and staying competitive are just a few. Who has time to wonder whether or not their sign has a typo? Written communication is a big part of being successful as a business owner, though. Here are the top 10 questions I get asked by small business owners when it comes to writing.
Top 10 questions small business owners ask about writing
1. Do I really need to worry about writing? I’m a plumber (baker, accountant, or any other occupation), not a writer.
Yes. Writing really is important to your business. If you didn’t have the ability to speak, it would make interacting with your customers much harder, right? Writing is just another way you speak, and it reaches many more people than your voice does. If your signage, flyers, emails, business correspondence, and website content contain writing that has errors or isn’t clear and effective, it’s a big turnoff to your customers and potential customers. Some people might actually look for another plumber/baker/accountant or whatever your profession is, just because of simple errors in your writing. Why? Because if you don’t pay attention to something like that, then, they think, you won’t pay attention to the other things you do in your job. If you don’t care enough to use the correct to, too, or two, then maybe you won’t care whether you install the P-trap under their sink properly, either. You may think that’s not true, and you may be right, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve still lost that customer. There’s a saying: The way a person does one thing is the way they do everything. Good writing really does count.
2. I’m no good at writing. Does that mean I have to hire a professional to do it for me?
You don’t have to, but sometimes it is a good idea to do exactly that. I wouldn’t dare try to replace the thrown tie rod in my vehicle myself, although some people can and do make that repair themselves successfully. In my case, that task is best left to a professional mechanic. Some business owners can write their own correspondence, signage, and even ad copy. Many really should hire a pro for some or even all of those writing tasks. It doesn’t always have to be a professional writer, meaning someone who gets paid to write, but it does have to be a good writer.
3. How can you tell if you should hire a pro or do it yourself?
One way is to take one example of each of the types of writing you’re wondering about (a sign, a flyer, a brochure, a sales letter, etc.), and run it by a professional writer or editor. Many will give free consultations, and if they don’t, most will charge just a small fee for a straightforward job like that. Ask them to look at the pieces and simply give an opinion: Does it communicate clearly, with no errors, or should you hire the writer (or editor) across town to redo the piece? Framing the question this way helps you to get an honest opinion. If the person you’re asking knows that you’re not going to hire THEM to do the work, they’re less likely to tell you that the writing needs improvement—unless it actually needs improvement. It’s best to be up front with them about this, though. No one likes to be led to believe that they have a gig coming up, only to find that the person was just seeking information. Be ready to pay them for their time and expertise allocated to your task. You can always choose to have that person be the one who does your writing (or editing the writing you do yourself), if you choose.
Another way is to compare your writing to that of other businesses. Read through your junk mail and the inserts in your utility bills, for example. If your writing stacks up to that, then you’re probably doing just fine. If it doesn’t communicate as effectively, or if you know you have mistakes in your writing, then it’s best to get some help in that department. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and if you hire someone who is a good writer, you may see an uptick in business, which could make the writing pay for itself. Thinking of it as an investment in your business is helpful. Keep track of the payment as a business expense, of course.
4. How can I find a good writer? I don’t have all day to search. I have a business to run.
This is a great question. Finding a good writer can take time, but it can also be done quickly. There are several places to find good writers, and some are better than others.
- Colleges are one place to find new and inexpensive writers. Simply call one and ask for a writing professor, then ask that person to give your contact information to their best students. If you have the students email you samples, you can find out two things: who’s interested, and whose writing you like (if any). A couple of minutes of your time, and you may just land a good writer.
- Freelance job boards such as Elance, oDesk, and Amazon Turk are also places to find inexpensive writers. Buyer beware on those sites, however.
- Ad agencies are excellent sources, but they are usually quite expensive. You might ask if they have an affordable freelancer to recommend. Many do use freelancers in addition to their staff.
- Your local phone book might list freelance writers. The writers may be listed as “marketing consultants” or “business consultants.” I know that’s confusing, but it helps many writers get business (and get paid more, too).
- Your local professional printer may use a freelance writer, or even have one on staff.
- Social media can be a quick way to do this. Just tell people that you’re looking for a commercial freelance writer.
- Another way is to ask “Who wrote this?” whenever you see a piece of writing that looks good to you. In short, ask around.
Here’s the most important part: when you find someone who writes, ask for samples of the person’s writing so you can see if it’s good. Not everyone who is new to writing (and therefore likely to be more affordable) is bad, and not everyone who’s been doing it for years is good.
Please do the writing world a favor, and pay the writer. It doesn’t always have to be in dollars—the writer might need what you offer in your business and be open to a barter arrangement. It never hurts to ask. Whatever you do, stay away from giving the writer the old “exposure” line, which goes something like this: “I can’t pay you, but hey, your career will really benefit from the exposure.” You’re a professional and you deserve to get paid for your work. So does your writer.
5. How much does it cost to hire a writer?
I’m going to apologize here, because there is no hard-and-fast answer on how much it “should” cost. The cost of writing varies more than any other product/service I’ve ever seen. Rates range from a low of $1/page for correspondence or signage to $3,000 a page (for sales letters). Why such a variance? Several factors go into pricing:
- how desperate or how in demand the writer is
- the type of writing (a sales letter is the most expensive kind)
- the speed with which it must be done (rush jobs cost more)
- how much the writer likes you as a client, and even
- the confidence level of the writer.
A secret many professional writers won’t tell you:
The amount of work you request can also affect pricing. If a writer knows that you’ll be sending them more work over time, especially if you’re willing to set up a contract for a certain amount, you might be able to get all the writing you need done for a fraction of the cost. I intentionally say “cost” instead of “price” because writers have to factor in things like concepting time and marketing themselves. There is a real cost, not just some arbitrary dollar amount someone decides to charge. I have given a steep discount for large, long-term projects because the steady income meant I didn’t have to do nearly as much legwork getting new clients for a while, and that made it possible for me to do it at a lower cost, which I passed on to my client.
6. How long should it take a writer to produce my brochure/catalog/manifesto?
It should be done by the deadline the two of you set. Speed and skill have no relationship. Some writers can really crank out the product fast. Of those people, some are good writers and some are not. Some professionals take what might seem like a long time, but what they produce is excellent. That said, here’s a rough rule of thumb for how long it takes me. Signage, business letters and other one-page items: by the end of the day. Brochure: one week. Catalog, employee handbook: one month.
7. What kinds of things should I have a writer take care of?
Some are going to be obvious, like your employee handbook and your marketing collateral: brochures, catalogs, and other pieces like that. Some don’t exactly jump out at you as something you need a pro for, such as your business correspondence, flyers, and menus or pricing guides. Others might totally slip by under the radar: your custom invoice forms and the sign you put on the restroom stall. I have seen signs saying, “Out of odor” taped to stall doors. Well, that’s nice. Smelly stalls are no fun. Oh, you mean to say that it’s not working! You should say that, then, and the sign should read “Out of order.”
8. How commonly do glaring mistakes occur in the writing of small business owners?
Errors occur too commonly, and there’s no reason it has to be that way. In my experience, the average small business owner who is not in a field related to writing has at least one major mistake in any given piece of writing. Word usage errors are extremely common. For whatever reason, many people don’t know when to use
- “your” and “you’re,”
- “their,” “there,” and “they’re”
- “to,” “two,” and “too”
- “suppose” and “supposed”
- “affect” and “effect”
- “accept” and “except.”
It’s also common to see people use words that aren’t actually words, such as “supposably” (it’s “supposedly”) and “irregardless” (it’s “regardless”).
The good news about getting writing done well is that you may need to have it done just once, and use that piece forever. The restroom stall sign, for example: have one made and laminated, then just tape it to the door when needed, which we hope won’t be very often. Some business owners think they need to redo their brochure every year, but they don’t need to do that if they avoid including things that can “date” it. Saying “since 2000” is much better than saying “for 14 years” because “since 2000” will be true this year, and next year, and the year after that. If you say “for 14 years,” then you’d have to update that brochure every year, because next year it will be “for 15 years.” Say “since (date)” instead, and save yourself a few hundred dollars a year.
Many other business owners don’t want to redo their brochure every year. Just the opposite. They say, “We just had that brochure created ten years ago, no need to do another one.” Neither approach is best. It’s a good idea to redo the brochure when your services or product lines change, for example, or when it looks outdated, but a well-written brochure can last you for several years and is well worth the investment.
9. What if the writer’s style just doesn’t fit with my business’ image? We’re not fancy around here.
Talking to your potential writer about your business’ style and image is an important part of hiring a writer. A good writer will be able to write in more than one style, such as formal and chatty. Not all writers can be funny, so if humor is part of your style, be sure to ask about that. Checking their samples will give you a good idea of how they write.
One thing I’ve found helpful as a writer is to ask the potential client for copies of the pieces they’ve been using, such as a brochure, a flyer, and photos of the signs that are up in their establishment and on their vehicles. I ask if they like the tone of their current materials, or if they’re wanting to go in another direction.
10. Can a writer help me change my business’ image?
Absolutely. Commercial (business) writing conveys a great deal about your company, and you can change the branding by changing the writing. The power writing has to convey who you are and what you’re about is immense, and should never be underestimated. The visual images associated with your business, such as your logo and website’s style, are important, too. Most writers will be able to recommend a graphic artist, and many have at least one they work with to help their clients. I currently have three: Justina Engen for formal, corporate-type styles; Steve Nebeker for folksy, down-to-earth and fun/amusing styles; and Celia Triplett for both kinds of styles. Celia also has marketing expertise. If you contact her, please tell her I sent you.
In short, anything that has words on it says something about your business. For the sake of your bottom line, make sure what it says is not interfering with your relationship with your customers. Good writing goes further than that, and can contribute to good relationships with your clientele. Best wishes in your business!
Jennifer Harshman has been writing and editing professionally since 1992. To contact her, email Jennifer@HarshmanServices.com